MAKING HIS BREAK

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three thousand miles and not all that much closer to unraveling the mystery of Brian Keefe's departure from UC Irvine. It's easier to navigate the labyrinth of streets twisting around the Boston Commons than it is to find your way to the root of Keefe's decision to transfer to Boston College.

And Keefe, who led the Anteaters in scoring last season as a sophomore, isn't forthcoming with a direct answer.

"Personal matters I'd rather not discuss," he says.

New Coach Jim O'Brien has some theories, but deflects any direct questions to Keefe. Old Coach Rod Baker may have some clues, but he's not commenting on the subject of "players who left the program."

Given the absence of eyewitness

accounts, we're left with speculation. So, let's examine a couple of popular possibilities:

BOSTON BLUES

Keefe grew up 20 minutes from Boston College in Winchester, Mass. UC Irvine's distant locale, he said at the time, was the only reason he spent two weeks of soul-searching before accepting a scholarship there in 1994.

"I know he was apprehensive about going out there at first," O'Brien said, "but he's indicated to me he had a very positive experience there. He has been very complimentary about the coaching staff, the kids on the team, the school. That's why I think homesickness is a big factor."

The homesickness theory probably wouldn't stand up in court, though.

Exhibit A: Keefe's girlfriend, Anteater volleyball player Lara Nelson, is still at Irvine. Talk about your long-distance relationships.

Exhibit B: Plane tickets. Lots of them. Despite the cross-country trip, his parents saw many of their son's games at Irvine.

Exhibit C: The sailing column of the Daily Pilot. Keefe's sister, Stephanie, works and lives in Newport Beach.

Exhibit D: Winters in New England. Keefe apparently never pined for snowstorms and roaring fires. "I'm already missing the weather in Irvine," he said, pulling a long, hooded leather jacket over his sweatshirt. "Especially today."

It was sunny and 30 degrees.

Hardly a Nor'easter.

And Keefe's own testimony on homesickness--he doesn't want to even say the word--is hardly convincing.

"A little bit, I guess it's good to be home," he said. "And once I had decided to leave, I looked at some other schools, but it helped that this school was so close to home."

EAST vs. WEST

The skinny, tough kid from Winchester didn't develop into an awesome physical presence during two years at Irvine, but he established himself as a solid Division I basketball player. He proved to be a tireless worker--janitors on both coasts have tossed him out of gyms so they could lock up for the night--a role model of physical and mental toughness and a team leader on the court, in the locker room and in the box scores.

"I was totally surprised when he first called me about transferring," O'Brien said. "I mean, we had followed his progress and were happy he was having such a good career at Irvine. He was starting and scoring a lot of points. It was quite a success story, really."

That taste of success may have given Keefe a renewed craving for sweet East Coast hoops and soured him on the bland Big West. Had he become a player worthy of a better brand of college basketball?

"I remember saying when I first got out West that basketball was better back here, but now I would just say it's a different style," Keefe said. "There's talent everywhere, but here it's more, well, intense."

Keefe has also said he wanted his grandparents to be able to see him play, but it's hard to blame a kid from Boston for choosing the Big East over the Big West for less altruistic reasons.

Let's see, would I rather play in a major arena packed to the rafters with die-hard, life-long fans or Titan Gym . . . hmmmmm.

SHADOW BOXING

One former Irvine assistant, who couldn't offer any concrete examples of discord, hinted there must have been a rift between player and head coach. But Keefe and Baker have adamantly denied it.

"We got along great," Keefe says.

And there certainly is no evidence to doubt him.

Keefe was deeply honored when Baker named him team captain when he was only a sophomore. He's grateful the Irvine coach gave him the chance to play as a freshman, even a chance to start ahead of senior Chris Brown--who had been the most prolific three-point shooter in the nation as a junior--when Brown struggled as a senior.

And this breakup can't have had anything to do with playing time--Keefe averaged 33 minutes a game, second on the team to the nation's No. 1 assist man, point guard Raimonds Miglinieks. It also can't have had anything to do with his role--he led the team in scoring (16.4 points a game) and three-pointers attempted (160).

"I enjoyed a great two years out there and I have nothing but the utmost respect for the people at Irvine," Keefe said.

OK, but if it was one big, happy Anteater family, then why leave?

Pressing Keefe on this question is not unlike pressing him on the court. He might be sitting in a conference room above the hockey rink at Boston College's Conte Forum, but he's as elusive now as he is on the fast break. A head-fake here. A reverse pivot there. Now he's tip-toeing down the sideline.

Continue to press and he'll feint and pretend to relent: "OK, you might say I wasn't happy with the direction the program was headed."

SLINKING FROM THE SINKING

Who the heck was?

Miglinieks had graduated. Forward Kevin Simmons, the Big West freshman of the year in 1994-95 and a second-team all-conference pick along with Keefe last season, was giving up his battle to remain eligible in the academically oriented Irvine environment. Highly touted forward Tchaka Shipp, a medical redshirt, had been dismissed from school for allegedly cheating.

And Baker--in the last year of a contract that has little chance of being extended--may not have been packing yet, but he was probably saving nice-sized cardboard boxes.

Simmons had not yet informed Baker of his intentions to transfer, but Keefe--who says he is "a lot closer to Kevin than most people know"--admits now he was aware of Simmons' plan to leave when he went to Athletic Director Dan Guerrero and requested permission to approach other schools.

Some believe Keefe felt the program collapsing around him and panicked. Maybe, but as one Irvine official said, "Brian did take a quantum leap up the college basketball ladder."

Perhaps it's as simple as that and Keefe is reluctant to discuss the real reasons for his transfer because the truth doesn't sound very noble.

He was a late bloomer headed for prep school after graduating from Winchester High, where he was the school's all-time scoring leader. But Keefe's 1,163 career points earned him less than a handful of scholarship offers, from schools such as Duquesne, Drexel and Richmond.

"We saw a lot of Brian in high school," O'Brien said, "and we just missed the boat on him. But then so did a lot of people. He was one of those kids who hadn't really developed yet."

Baker, however, was skippering that boat. Impressed with Keefe's potential after watching him play in an AAU tournament in Las Vegas, Baker offered a scholarship.

So where was Keefe during Baker's hour of need?

"I had a lot of mixed emotions about that and that made it hard to leave," Keefe said. "He gave me my first chance, played me when I was a freshman, made me captain . . . all of those things made it a tough decision.

"I know it's hard for people to understand, but I just felt like it was time for me to make a turning point."

ONLY THE BEGINNING

After transferring to Nevada Las Vegas, Simmons said he was tired of practicing against walk-ons at Irvine and felt he could no longer improve. If Keefe holds similar beliefs, you'll never get him to bad-mouth a former teammate.

But he clearly felt ready to make a move.

"I realized I could have the opportunity to play on another level and that my skills had reached the point where I could compete with the people on this level," Keefe said. "This was an opportunity for me to get better as a basketball player and that was a significant reason."

So now it's time for Keefe to belly up to that which he aspired to. He's required by NCAA rules to sit out a year after transferring, so he has a year to adjust, but he's already in a heated battle for respect every day in practice, where there's no shortage of competition.

"I'm not really sure where Brian fits in, but he'll fit into the mix," O'Brien said. "We have no senior guards this season, so it's going to be very competitive for him."

Guard Scoonie Penn averaged 13 points and was last year's Big East rookie of the year. Guards Antonio Granger and Duane Woodard averaged 11 and nine points respectively as sophomores last season.

"I'm starting over brand new," Keefe said. "I have to go out and prove my abilities all over again, but I'm ready for that."

Both O'Brien and Keefe are confident the year off will be beneficial.

"How often do you get a year off just to train?" Keefe said. "That's how I'm looking at it."

So he puts in an hour in the weight room every day, his usual extra 1 1/2 hours of working out alone in the gym every night and unsuccessfully tries to relax while sitting on the bench in jacket and tie during games.

"I like practice, I've always loved practice, but the games are really hard," he said. "Before the first exhibition game, I had first-game jitters and everything. I've never missed a game in my life for any reason and I live to compete. Man, just watching is frustrating."

That may be the only time Keefe questions his decision to transfer, though. And a year from now, he plans on having erased anyone's doubts.

"Brian and I have talked about it," said Miglinieks, who is playing in the Continental Basketball Assn., "and I'm sure there were a lot of different things he was thinking about.

"But we're talking about college basketball. These things happen."

Sometimes you're just never sure why.

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